Ranking The 30 Best Actors of All-Time
30. Robin Williams
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There was no one quite like Robin Williams. While Williams became better known as an actor, stand-up was his entry into life on stage. His sets were fierce, fearless, and wildly spontaneous. They veered away from established routines at the drop of a hat. Instead, they flew into new, hilarious territory. Williams then turned to film, and achieved success far beyond what his TV success (Mork and Mindy) could have indicated. He won an Academy Award for his work on Good Will Hunting (1997). This was one of four Oscar nominations he earned in his career (which also included Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King and Good Morning, Vietnam). It’s still hard to believe the beloved actor and comedian is gone. However, Williams leaves behind a cinematic legacy that we’ll still be talking about many decades from now.
29. Javier Bardem
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It’s no wonder Javier Bardem chose to pursue a career as an actor. He possess a chameleon-like ability to disappear into his characters. This frequently renders him unrecognizable (save for his piercing eyes). Born the youngest member of a family of actors in Spain, Bardem’s first role came at the age of six with the film El Picaro (aka The Scoundrel). Moving into the 1990s, Bardem’s collaborations with such filmmakers as Pedro Almodóvar and J.J. Bigas Luna saw his popularity as a Spanish screen star growing. He bolstered his status as an international leading man with Milos Foreman’s Goya’s Ghosts in 2006. The following year. his role in No Country for Old Men would bring Bardem the most substantial praise of his career to that point. Bardem’s portrayal of the remorseless, amoral killer Anton Chigurh earned him nearly every award that season (including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor).
28. Christian Bale
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Physically and emotionally, Christian Bale became something of a chameleon. He’s always going the extra mile to transform himself into a sociopath, American hero, or Caped Crusader. Bale’s commitment to the craft of acting has been evident from the word “go.” A former child actor who effortlessly bridged the gap to an acclaimed run of commercial and art house successes, he has been noted for his versatility and dedication to character. This is the guy who lost more than 60 pounds for 2004’s The Machinist. Then, Bale binged on ice cream for six months to beef up for his starring role in Batman Begins. In Adam McKay’s new film Vice, Bale effectively captures Dick Cheney’s essence with small but crucial details that bring the performance to life. Bale, who won Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter (2010), is one of our greatest living performers.
27. Tom Hanks
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Tom Hanks is Hollywood’s (and America’s) ultimate “everyman.” Like Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and Jimmy Stewart before him, Hanks is the guy audiences trust implicitly. With such a wide-ranging career in comedy, drama, and even animated movies, Hanks has spent the past three decades as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Hanks’ golden age began in 1993 with his release of Sleepless in Seattle. He was the quintessential rom-com lead. Hanks went on to win his first Academy Award that same year with his performance in Philadelphia. However, it was the 1994 film Forrest Gump that remains his most iconic role to date. It ultimately won him a Best Actor Oscar for the second year in a row.
26. Sean Penn
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From his breakout performance as beloved stoner Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to his award-winning efforts as a dramatic actor, Sean Penn has had a remarkable journey. For over 35 years on screen, Penn has acted in more than 50 films (and directed four others). Considered one of the finest actors of his generation, Penn’s streetwise simmer and wounded-animal core evoke the best of Brando and De Niro. He creates a character with infinite attention to detail. Penn won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Mystic River (2003) and Milk (2008).
25. Philip Seymour Hoffman
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The culture-wide sense of sadness around Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s death has never gone away. If you are even a casual film fan, chances are good that Hoffman starred in at least one of your favorite movies. He was no mere actor, and his work allowed us to understand ourselves and our world better. The beloved character actor began his career in 1992 with Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman. Later, he appeared in classic movies including The Big Lebowski, Moneyball, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Capote (the latter in which he played the title role and won the Oscar for Best Actor). Even a cursory glance through Hoffman’s filmography shows how vital he remains to recent American cinema and theater. It’s clear that we lost one of the true acting greats in Hoffman. Fortunately, his towering legacy lives on through the great work he shared with us.
24. Denzel Washington
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Of all A-list stars, Denzel Washington’s career may be the most enviable. Although he is a well-established on-screen persona, its mutable enough to allow him to move from R-rated actions films (The Book of Eli), serious dramas (Philadelphia), to passion projects with frequent collaborators (Spike Lee). Ever since his theatrical debut (early ’80s), the actor has given some of the most incredible performances of our time across more than three decades. This two-time Oscar winner (Training Day, Glory) has carved a space for himself as one of America’s most bankable stars. Intelligent, commanding, charming, and quietly cool but still capable of conveying passion rage, Washington is a movie star in the classical sense.
23. Gary Oldman
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Gary Oldman has never been an awards favorite. He’s simply too good an actor, and too generous an actor. Oldman quietly takes a commanding lead when duty calls. He also disappears invisibly into an ensemble as a true team player. Oldman recently earned critical acclaim (and his first Oscar) for his transformation into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. The veteran actor has always been praised for disposing of every last ounce of his own personality to embody every aspect of the character he’s portraying. His role in Sid and Nancy helped to make Oldman one of Hollywood’s greatest ’90s villains (including roles in movies like True Romance and The Fifth Element). Oldman finally achieved superstardom in the new millennium playing Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series — as well as Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight trilogy.
22. Robert De Niro
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Ask any aspiring actor who their biggest inspiration is, and you’ll likely hear one name: Robert De Niro. His influence is so great that he helped spawn the undying method acting trend. De Niro made this style of acting popular with movies such as Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. In every character, he provided the authentic emotional intensity for the New Hollywood filmmakers (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese) who were dead set on shaking up the old order of family-friendly Hollywood fluff. De Niro’s impressive career spans 40 years. Despite hitting every milestone possible, the 75-year-old New York native has shown no signs of slowing down.
21. Fred Astaire
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Dancer, musician, singer, actor…you name it, Fred Astaire probably did it. Astaire transformed the musical genre in Hollywood. He introduced dance to film alongside on-screen partner Ginger Rogers in classics such as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) , and Shall we Dance (1936). Although he died in 1987, his legacy of elegance, grace, and ingenuity on the dance floor has not faded. Over his 35-year film career, Astaire performed in 31 movie musicals. Simply put, he changed the way dance was filmed. Looking at almost any of Astaire’s incredible films, it’s hard not to repeat the cliche, “He made it look so easy.”
20. Spencer Tracy
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Tracy is one of Hollywood’s best loved stars. Many critics, in fact, believe him to be the greatest of them all. Virtually peerless in natural talent and professional accomplishment, Tracy had an unparalleled career that spanned four decades. He amassed nine Academy Award nominations — a record he continues to share with Laurence Olivier. He would go on to win two Oscars for his performances in Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). Tracy also starred in such hits as Father of the Bride (1960) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Regardless of his personal issues (alcoholism and philanderer), Tracy was a giant among leading men at the box office.
19. Morgan Freeman
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You will struggle to find an actor more loved than Morgan Freeman. The 81-year-old actor from Memphis has enjoyed a prolific career in film, television, and on stage. If you were to ask to name one actor capable of playing ex-cons, hit men, and God, you’d be hard pressed to do any better than Freeman. He has been nominated for an Academy Award five times — winning Best Supporting Actor in 2004 for his role in boxing drama, Million Dollar Baby. Past the half century mark as a professional actor, Freeman has shown no signs of slowing down.
18. Robert Duvall
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In 1981, the New York Times declared him America’s greatest actor. Duvall’s break-through came as Boo Radley in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). A decade later, Duvall came back with a sublime performance as Tom Hagen in The Godfather (1972). He has been nominated for seven Academy Awards (winning for his performance in Tender Mercies). One of Hollywood’s most distinguished, popular, and versatile actors, Duvall possesses the rare gift of totally immersing himself in every role he undertakes.
17. Clark Gable
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The definition of American masculinity, Clark Gable was officially proclaimed the “King of Hollywood” during his Golden Age heyday. Initially considered too rough to play the romantic lead, Gable’s forceful persona earned him scores of fans in films like A Free Soul, Red Dust, and San Francisco. He won an Oscar for his role in Frank Capra’s film It Happened One Night, made women swoon in Mutiny on the Bounty, and charmed as roguish Rhett Butler in the epic Gone with the Wind. His delivery of the latter film’s classic line — “Frankly, my dear I don’t give a damn” — was soon among the most quoted in the history of cinema.
16. James Dean
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James Dean cemented his place in cinema history with just three films before his death in 1955: East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956). The latter two films earned him Oscar nominations, and today he remains one of the screen’s most famous personifications of troubled adolescent and raw emotional power. With his brooding, boyish good looks, he dazzled audiences — projecting the same sensitive masculinity pioneered on screen by Marlon Brando. Decades after his death, Dean continues to make appearances in pop culture. Perpetually young and handsome in our memory, Dean finds his way into songs, movies, and more.
15. Richard Burton
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Oscar nominated seven times and married to Elizabeth Taylor twice, Richard Burton was one of the great Welsh movie stars of all-time. He brought his sonorous voice and commanding presence to a plethora of classic films. With his rugged looks and captivating persona, Burton is best known for his brooking portrayals of intellectually articulate men who are pessimistic or self-destructive. Alternating between London theatre, Broadway and Hollywood through the 1950’s and 60’s, Burton delivered several high-caliber performances (including George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Mark Antony in Cleopatra. He was one of the finest and most notorious actors of his generation. Burton lived a life only few could ever imagine.
14. Orson Welles
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Where to begin with Orson Welles? A polarizing figure in his lifetime, Welles was groundbreaking in three forms of media: The radio (his infamous War of the World broadcast), theater (founded the Mercury Theater), and film. Welles was the classic example of the genius that burns bright early in life only to flicker and fade later. Regardless of how one feels, he did produce some of the greatest films in the history of cinema. Welles was groundbreaking in style and aesthetic. Routinely ranked at the top of many a “Best Films of All Time” list, Welles’ towering achievement Citizen Kane is a triumph of style — and also a masterpiece to be marveled at for all of time.
13. Al Pacino
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Some icons are so enduring, ubiquitous, and larger-than-life that they take on an air of vulnerability. A rare “Triple Crown of Acting” performer (winning an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony), Al Pacino is simply one of the greatest actors in American film history. His 1970’s work practically defined New York City when he skyrocketed to prominence with his starling breakout role in Panic in Needle Park. Then of course, there’s the Godfather trilogy. Michael Corleone remains the character that continues to define Pacino’s legacy. He’s a workaholic, a genius, and a guy who makes a lot of odd choices concerning the scripts he picks. However, Pacino seems quite content to do whatever the hell he wants.
12. Cary Grant
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From thrillers to romantic comedies, British-born Cary Grant starred in some of the very finest films to have come out of Hollywood. Grant is the epitome of the urbane, sophisticated Hollywood actor. His charisma and comedic persona have survived the passing of time better than many comparable icons of the industry’s “Golden Age.” A definitive leading man, Grant was known for a mixture of both comedic and dramatic roles. Despite two previous nominations, he was finally awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1970 (which was presented by his dear friend Frank Sinatra).
11. Paul Newman
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Paul Newman’s rugged good looks, piercing blue eyes and irresistible air of weary virility made him a top box-office attraction for decades. Cat on the Hot Tin Roof earned him his first Academy nomination in 1968, while his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money won him his first Oscar. With his rebellious nature, Newman had no trouble transitioning into the rapidly changing studio systems of the ’60s. He acted in more than 65 movies over a 50-year span. Newman drew on physical grace, unassuming intelligence and good humor. This made his acting ability seem completely effortless.
10. Dustin Hoffman
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From the moment he first made his dent on the public consciousness as Benjamin Braddock (the confused young man/symbol of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate), Dustin Hoffman helped signal a sea change in screen acting. Character actors could suddenly become movie stars. In the nearly 50 years since he was thrust onto the scene, he’s given us some of the most memorable turns in American movies. He’s played a Watergate scoundrel, an existential detective, an enraged divorcee, and a two-bit crook. It’s safe to say Hoffman is a national treasure, and one of the most important actors of his generation.
9. Sidney Poitier
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A legendary actor, director and diplomat, Sir Sidney Poitier has led a life full of remarkable achievements. He became the first African American to win an Oscar for his role in Lilies of the Field. Later, he was appointed the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. Because of his refusal to compromise his principles and his insistence on taking roles that avoided stereotypical depictions of African Americans, Poitier earned the respect of audiences and his peers alike. Adept at imbuing the multitude of striking characters he played with intelligence, pride, and righteous anger, Poitier’s screen presence and gravitas led him to the very top of his profession.
8. Gregory Peck
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An actor celebrated both on and off screen for his strength and authority, Gregory Peck starring in numerous classic movies. To get an accurate measure of both the man and the actor, look no further than his performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. This was undoubtedly his most identifiable role. Peck worked with some of the day’s great directors, and was nominated for five Best Actor Academy Awards. A favorite among audiences for decades, Peck was a bankable star whose creative integrity was never questioned.
7. Anthony Hopkins
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With more than 130 roles on stage and screen in a career that spans over five decades, Sir Anthony Hopkins seems far from ready to ride off into the sunset. Some actors struggle with typecasting for their entire careers. Some — like Hopkins — get to do pretty much whatever they want. Since making his film debut in 1968, Hopkins has dabbled in everything from period dramas to horror. He picked up an Academy Award for his performance in Silence of the Lambs. Whether he play a hero or a villain — or a leader or servant — this definitive actor can do it all.
6. Jimmy Stewart
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James Maitland Stewart began his acting career on Broadway, and had his first film role alongside Spencer Tracy in the 1936 film Murder Man. He made a career as the ultimate self-effacing American every man, but later would graduate into darker roles in Hitchcock westerns and thrillers. In a career that spanned five decades, Stewart played real-life heroes and ordinary people, pioneers, lawmen, cowboys, military officers, politicians, businessmen, reporters, fools and wise men. In 1940, he would go on to win his first Academy Award for his performance in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story.
5. Jack Nicholson
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One of the few actors to exemplify the counterculture, Jack Nicholson is the Gable, the Bogart, and the Cagney of his times. His illustrious career has been spent playing brooding rebels, crazed villains and sneering charmers on the big screen. Totally unflinching in his choice of material, Nicholson’s body of work has earned him a dozen Academy Award nominations (a record for a male actor). The three-time Oscar winner redefined what a leading man could be in the 1970’s and ’80s in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Last Detail, and The Shining. Additionally, Nicholson walloped us over the head decades later with arguably his best work to date in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. One of cinema’s truly iconic actors of the past fifty years, its impossible to not like — or fall in love with Jack Nicholson.
4. Laurence Olivier
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It was Olivier’s interpretative originality that made him a great actor. He soon became known as the greatest English-speaking actor of the 20th century. In 1944, he returned to film as star and director of Shakespeare’s Henry V. This outstanding blend of old-fashioned theatricality and “pure” cinema earned him an Academy Award. He went on to star in three additionally Shakespearean film adaptations, two of which he also directed/ Hamlet won him an Oscar for both Best Picture and Actor.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis
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At several different points in his three-time Oscar-winning career, Daniel Day-Lewis has threatened to quit acting. Each time was in appropriately dramatic fashion for the legendarily eccentric method actor. But Daniel Day is incomparable. He is a looming legendary figure in cinema. Lewis’ stature has cemented after five decades of work as one of the greatest actors in the world. Simply put, he is one of the all-time greats — up there with the likes of Olivier and Brando. From his incredible performance in There Will Be Blood to Lincoln, Daniel-Day moves to the beat of his own particular drum.
2. Marlon Brando
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Defining what Marlon Brando meant for films in America is like unwinding neurons in our head. One of the most recognizable actors of all time, Brando is often hailed for bringing an intense realism to his performances. It was his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) rocketed Brando to popularity. Following this, he played iconic gang leader Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, and received his first Oscar for On the Waterfront. His second Oscar came two decades later for his performance of Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
1. Humphrey Bogart
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Named greatest male star in the history of American cinema by the American Film Institute in 1999, Humphrey Bogart is without a doubt one of the biggest stars of the silver screen. In a career that spawned almost three decades, he appeared in about 75 feature films. Bogart played a scared anti-hero in Casablanca. He also played a drunken riverboat captain in The African Queen, and a detective in The Maltese Falcon. During this time, Bogart became the quintessential hard-boiled cynical tough guy, a true screen legend and ultimately a genuine cultural icon.